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Dr. Chris’ Autism Journal
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Parents: Preparing for the Winter Holidays


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The winter holidays can be a difficult time for children with ASD and their families. Difficulties may arise from too much free time, changes in routine, and gift giving.

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Most school-age children are off school for two to three weeks for the winter holidays, leaving six to eight hours of unstructured time for families to fill each day. You’re not alone if you dread the school holidays; past experience has taught you that a lot can go wrong in two or three weeks. If you haven’t already done so, now is the time to plan how you will structure that free time for your child with ASD. Plan activities for each day of the vacation, and create simple visual supports (e.g., print a picture of a park from the Internet if you will be taking your child to the park) to prime your child about the activities you have planned. If possible, allow your child to help decide on the activities you are planning. During the vacation, review the schedule for the day the night before and on the morning of the day to which the schedule refers. Of course, you can’t plan for everything, and you will invariably have to make changes to the schedule. Let your child know of any changes as soon as possible, and provide visual supports to make the changes concrete for your child. If your family will be traveling during the vacation, changes to the schedule such as flight delays are even more likely. Prepare your child that more than likely, there will be changes to the schedule, perhaps through the use of a social story. Don’t forget to bring an assortment of things for your child to do such as coloring, books, games, or a laptop computer. plane travel.jpg
Where your child will go and what he or she will do in a day are not the only changes that may be upsetting during the winter holidays. Many people visit with friends and relatives during this time that they rarely see during the rest of the year. These people may feel like strangers to your child, and he or she may behave accordingly. Forcing your child to hug Aunt Mary because “She came all the way from Boston to see us,” is likely to induce challenging behaviors from your child and to make Aunt Mary very uncomfortable. Aunt Mary insisting on a hug may produce similar results. Inform Aunt Mary that your child may view her as a stranger and she should not be offended before Aunt Mary arrives at your home (or you at hers). If possible, show your child pictures of friends and relatives you will visit and review the names of these people before the visit.

Mansnowman.jpgy people exchange gifts during the winter holidays. This can be a source of great disappointment for family and friends of a child with ASD. As a behavior therapist, I once special ordered a beach magnet set for a child I worked with one-on-one, three hours a day, five days a week. I was sure he would love it. I imagined all the exciting language he would produce when we played with those magnets. I heard in my mind spontaneous comments he would make and squeals of delight he would emit. As you probably guessed, the boy opened the magnet set, said nothing, put it down, and picked up another toy. I tried to engage him with the magnets through my enthusiasm. Nothing worked. I have heard similar stories from parents and educators time and again. Even when the child showed intense interest in a toy when it belonged to someone else or requested the toy, the same toy is often of little interest to the child when received as a holiday gift.  As a parent, there is nothing you can do to prevent this. If you have a neurotypical child, you may have complained that he or she only played with a new toy for a day and lost interest. This is part of being a parent, but it is especially disheartening when your child is on the Autism Spectrum, has limited interests, and you worked so hard to find that special gift. Remember that your effort is special regardless of the immediate reaction to the gift. And time may reward your effort. I heard that the beach magnet set became a preferred toy for the boy I worked with over a year later.

Assistive Technology


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icon_child1.gifMany children with autism spectrum disorders require the use of assistive technology to help them learn at home, in the community, and in school.  The term “technology” does not simply relate to things like computers, TV, video, or cameras.  In fact, these materials are considered to be “high technology” compared to items which are “mid technology” such as overhead projectors, calculators, and CD players.  There are also “low technology” items which are probably used the most for this population.  This would include things like picture schedules, picture communication, highlighters, dry erase boards, and many of the other visual supports that are needed to help the child learn.2002-2-March.jpg

If you are interested in learning more about assistive technology, I found an excellent summary by Susan Stokes which was written under a contract with CESA 7 and funded by a discretionary grant from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

itechcenter1.jpgThere are many organizations which deal with assistive technology (AT) and aim to help families better understand their options and to choose the appropriate AT for their child.  One such organization is Parents Helping Parents who offers an iTECH Center with hands-on experience with different types of AT and provides training sessions to help families use the AT.  I will be doing a parent information night on October 25th to teach families in the San Francisco bay area more about the TeachTown: Basics program.  If you are interested in attending, spaces are still available.

There are also several conferences each year which host thousands of at050_360_Jupiter_Classroom.jpgtendees including parents, teachers, speech pathologists, behavioral consultants, and schools staff to provide more information about assistive technology.  One such conference is the Closing the Gap Conference at the Sheraton Bloomington Hotel in Minneapolis, Minnesota on October 19-2, 2006 with pre-conference workshops October 17-18.  In addition to the many other valuable exhibits and presentations, TeachTown will host an exhibit booth there with demonstrations and information about our products and research.

In January, 2007, another big assistive technology conference will take place in Orlando, Florida.  This conference is sponsored by the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) and will occur at the Caribe Royale Resort on January 24-27.  TeachTown will be hosting an exhibit booth and will provide a hands-on training workshop for TeachTown: Basics.

phase1j.jpgIf you are interested in picture communication specifically, Pyramid Educational Consultants provides some of the best training.  This program uses the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) and workshops are available all over the country. 

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